The Election Commission’s conscience should throb at Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s budgetary proposal to grant income tax relief to people who fall in the income slab of Rs 2.5 lakh-Rs 5 lakh a year.

This proposal, cutting their tax rate from 10% to 5% was announced on February 1, even as the model code of conduct for the elections is in place, will certainly have an impact on the upcoming polls in five states – not so much by guaranteeing a sweep for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies but by elevating the mood of those who have reeled under the harsh consequences of demonetisation.

A sensible Election Commission would have also found problematic the focus of the Budget for 2017-’18 on agriculture and its subtle bolstering of the Narendra Modi government’s narrative on combating the menace of black money, initiated through the big-bang announcement of the invalidation of high-denomination notes on November 8.

Prime Minister Modi is sure to boast about the budgetary proposal barring political parties from receiving cash donations exceeding Rs 2,000 at election meetings over the next month. He is likely to present it as an example of his resolve to cleanse Indian politics of the inimical influence of black money. Elections are won and lost not just on account of the performance of the incumbent government, but also because of the perception of the kind of future a leader seeks to craft for voters.

Who let down whom?

It is hard to say whether the Election Commission was betrayed by the government or chose to be betrayed. Anyone who has even a passing interest in economic matters knows that budgets tinker with tax rates and offer incentives to different sectors. All these, at least theoretically, have the potential of influencing the popular opinion about the party in power.

From this perspective, the Election Commission certainly failed us by allowing the government to present the Union Budget on February 1. This it did by sweeping aside the reservations of the Opposition, which had wanted the Budget presentation postponed to March, once the polling in all the states had been completed.

The Opposition feared the Budget would deny it a level-playing field and incentives or sops given to voters could influence their voting decisions, more so as Punjab and Goa are slated to go to polls on February 4. In electorally crucial Uttar Pradesh, polling begins on February 11, while Uttarakhand votes on February 15 and Manipur on March 4 and March 8.

The Election Commission rejected the Opposition’s plea on two erroneous premises. For one, it accepted the government’s undertaking that the Budget would not allocate special projects to the states going to polls, thereby avoiding the charge that it was influencing voters. Second, it was argued that since the Assembly elections are a state event and the presentation of the Union Budget a national one, the latter cannot be said to impact the former.

But this argument is disingenuous. A slash in Income Tax rates, for instance, has countrywide implications, as does its announcements about agricultural policy. Likewise, Modi’s campaign against black money has a countrywide sweep, evident during the demonetisation process.

At least thematically, the proposal to proscribe cash donations to political parties beyond Rs 2,000 is an aspect of the campaign against unaccounted for wealth.The blowback of this proposal will be experienced most by regional parties. It will have the BJP project Modi to be battling, rather heroically, the corrupt political system.

Dangerous trend

Undoubtedly, Jaitley’s Budget, regardless of its eventual electoral impact, violates the spirit of the model code of conduct, the clauses of which specifically aim at denying the party in power the incumbency advantage. The government is expected to desist from making announcements that will influence voters in its favour. Given that the BJP is contesting in all the five states going to polls and Modi and Jaitley will be among its star campaigners, the Budget could have given the party an unfair advantage.

Obviously, it will be impossible to gauge the precise electoral impact of, say, tax relief given to people. Nevertheless, in an interview to last month, former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi had rightly pointed out:

“To say that the Indian voter is very discerning, or that a populist measure doesn’t matter significantly, is a fallacious argument. Even if one person is influenced by a populist announcement, it matters. Voters are human beings, who are susceptible to hawa (mood) created through marketing techniques and announcements of sops.”

It would perhaps be uncharitable to accuse the Election Commission of being partisan to a government that is not really respectful of institutional independence and propriety. Yet, come to think of it, the Election Commission had to merely remind the BJP that its clamour had the United Progressive Alliance postpone the Budget in 2012, when the same five states had chosen their Assemblies.

Manifest in Jaitley’s Budget is the erosion of the institutional autonomy of the Election Commission and values such as non-partisanship in the performance of public duties.

That should alarm us, as so many other institutions are witnessing unbearable stresses and strains. The bruising battle between the executive and the judiciary is ratcheted up every passing month. The demonetisation policy has eroded the credibility of the Reserve Bank of India, whose governor had commanded tremendous prestige till now. Not to be forgotten is the manner in which the luminaries from the ruling dispensation hounded Raghuram Rajan into quitting as RBI governor.

For nearly two years, we have had the Centre locked in bitter confrontation with the AAP government in Delhi. Former Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung was thought to be doing the Centre’s bidding in stymieing every proposal of the Delhi Government. Kiran Bedi seems to have taken a leaf out of Jung’s book, harrying the Congress government of Puducherry as its lieutenant governor. Add to this the perception that the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate have been targeting those whom the BJP sees as rivals.

No doubt, the erosion of institutional autonomy and integrity did not begin with the BJP and Modi’s advent to power. But let alone reversing this perturbing process, they have aggravated the crisis our institutions have been facing.

Looking West

Those manning institutions such as the Election Commission, as well as bureaucrats and police officers, would do well to turn their gaze to the United States. There, you see a mutiny of sorts in the US administration against President Donald Trump’s controversial executive orders banning travelers from seven Muslim countries from entering the country and suspending the refugee admissions system for 120 days.

For instance, acting Attorney General Sally Yates preferred to be fired instead of directing her department lawyers to defend Trump’s travel policy against legal challenges. She was a political appointee whom Trump had inherited from his predecessor Barack Obama. Perhaps it could be argued that she had little to lose in becoming a conscionable opponent, likely as she was to be replaced soon.

But what cannot possibly be deemed opportunistic is the decision of hundreds of American diplomats to sign a dissent memo against Trump’s policy, arguing that it “runs counter to American values” and could be “counter-productive.” They have indeed risked their future career prospects.

Indeed, institutional integrity cannot be preserved as long as those in the institutions refuse to stand up to be counted, either out of fear, or for furthering their careers, or sheer ennui. Budget 2017 tells us what the Election Commission, as also other government organs, must learn from Trump’s America – for it could have trickier decisions to take over the next few years.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.